Martin Rowson's cartoon of Laurie Taylor for the September/October 2009 issue of New HumanistI was seriously beginning to think that Marian might be the one for me, that she had that very special combination of looks, intelligence and sensitivity which I’d been unsuccessfully searching for most of my life, when I called into a pub in Upper Holborn on the way home from work one evening and found her sitting in the corner of the bar, sharing a drink, and what had obviously been an extremely funny story, with my ex-wife.

“What were you and she laughing about?”

“We were just having a drink together. We ran into each other accidentally and decided to have a drink together. That was it.”

“I could see that you and she were having a drink together. And frankly I’m not terribly interested in how fate might have contrived your meeting. But I did just want to know what you were both finding so very funny.”

“It wasn’t anything specific. We were simply having a laugh.”

“About what?”

“It wasn’t anything to do with you if that’s what you’re thinking”. She stared into my eyes in the manner recommended for liars by cheap novelists. “Believe-it or-not-we-weren’t-actually-talking-about-you.”

Later that night as we lay slumped against each on the sofa watching an item on Newsnight about an outbreak of ritual horse stabbing in Norfolk, I suddenly felt a slight vibration. And another. I turned to Marian. She was shaking with uncontrollable laughter. Even as I looked at her she brought both her hands up to her mouth and emitted an hysterical wail.

“I’m sorry but I can’t help it,” she stammered in between sobs of laughter. “It was something your wife said about you.”

“My ex-wife. And what did my ex-wife say about me in a conversation which we’ve already established was not about me?”

“She said,” and Marian had to look away for a moment in order to compose herself. “She said that whatever I did I should try at all costs to avoid one of your … one of your … one of your … chilli con carnes.” As I roughly disentangled myself from her still shaking body, I could see her full face for the first time. It had a pleading look. She was daring to suggest that I might like to join in the joke.

She could not have been more mistaken. But then she could not have known that for the best part of 30 years I have regarded my chilli con carne as evidence that if I turned my mind to it I was capable of doing something that might well, be described as creative. I didn’t delude myself. My chilli was not exactly a novel or a slim volume of poetry or a sculpture, but it was in some small way a personal expression of taste and judgement. It was what might be called my signature dish.

But now that I looked at Marian’s tear-stained face I was forced to entertain the suspicion that for years I’d been cooking my chilli for people who had not properly relished the manner in which I chopped the garlic and the onion, the way I’d carefully browned the meat before adding the chillies and tinned tomatoes, the insistence I’d shown on only pouring the carefully washed kidney beans into the casserole just twenty minutes before serving, and the sheer ingenuity of that last-minute teaspoon of balsamic vinegar.

I bit the bullet. “And what is so very funny about my chilli?” Marian made a big effort to compose her face.

“Well,” she began, “apparently you spend nearly an hour doing all your chopping and slicing and messing about and then after all that labour what you finally serve it up is what your wife called a bowl of burning hot slop which …” At this point Marian once again yielded to giggles while I sat up very straight and waited. “Burning hot slop,” I prompted.

“Yes, that’s right, a bowl of burning hot slop which looks like yesterday’s cat’s dinner. And the funny thing, the really funny thing, is that you think it’s terribly good and you keep on telling people what you put in it as though the ingredients of a chilli were normally a state secret and then you ask everyone else to say it’s good and not at all like the bland chillis you get in the gastropubs and how it makes a difference if you wash the kidney beans and put in a teaspoonful of some sort of vinegar and meanwhile they’re all choking over their next mouthful and still having to go, ‘Oh my word this is fantastic.’”

Marian and I parted shortly after that evening. We found that we had some irreconcilable differences over the early writings of Thomas Pynchon. There was also the problem of her expression. Whereas I’d previously been rather taken by the cheerful insouciance of her face I now realised that this was very much diminished by the mild sneer that constantly played about her lips.

I’ve not cooked my special chilli con carne recently. Instead I’ve been working up my rather personal version of a meat and chicken paella. I expect to be trying it out on a brand-new friend in the near future. Just as soon as I can find an attractive and intelligent and sensitive woman without any sense of humour.